Finding Your Team, Your Seventy

Parashat Behaalotecha

Delivered at Temple Emanu-El on June 1, 2018

If you’ve ever played a team sport, you know that the best teams aren’t carried by one player alone, but by the ability of everyone to work together. The best place we see this is in the NBA. All throughout these playoffs, we’ve seen that when Lebron has an off game, the Cavs don’t do so hot. In reality, if they are going to be the superb team they seek to be, a team capable of winning the NBA Finals, they better be ready to support their leader. When he gets tired, the rest of the team is supposed to be able to step up and help, the game shouldn’t rest entirely on his shoulders. That said, whenever players like Lebron land funny after a drive to the basket, everyone sort of scrunches up, exclaim “oooo!” and conclude with a, “well, that’s not good,” if there is any sign of limping after the play. Without Lebron, the Cavs would feel pretty alone, it wouldn’t be good.

Only two times in Torah, does our text use the phrase לֹא טוֹב, not good. In both instances, the phrase comes in the context of someone being alone in the world. First, in our creation narratives, while Adam exists independently on earth, God says, 

לֹא־טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ “It is not good for a person to be alone.”[1] God began to form animals, but those were not fitting enough companions. We may have pets, animals, that we love, but God knew that Adam needed something more, and Eve was formed, so that Adam would no longer be alone.

The second example of the phrase לֹא טוֹב, not good, comes from a conversation between Moses and his father-in-law, Yitro, when Yitro announces,  

לֹא־טוֹב הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עֹשֶׂה, “the thing you are doing is not good.”[2] What’s the thing Moses was doing? Moses was leading, leading the people of Israel, and he looked exhausted. Yitro knew that Moses would wear himself out if he continued to act alone. Thus, in the Book of Exodus, Yitro suggests Moses enlist some help from the people over legal disputes, to take some of the burden off Moses.

In the art of comparing Lebron to Moses here, I’d only point out that, when Lebron’s teammates aren’t supporting him, he must feel very alone, worn out, and ready for everyone to step back up and help him be the best he can be…and when they don’t, it’s simply “not good.”

In our Torah portion this week, Behaalotecha, from the Book of Numbers, like the Moses of the Book of Exodus, who wore himself out to the point of exhaustion, he has not found enough relief to feel much better. Instead, things have gone done hill. He actually feels so alone in his leadership that he wants to die! The Israelites have been complaining about their conditions and lack of meat to eat as they travel in the wilderness from slavery to the Promised land, and Moses just can’t take it anymore. “If this is how You, [God,] are going to treat me, [without support to calm the complaints of the Israelites,” Moses says, “[then] please, go ahead and kill me, I would rather die than spend the rest of my life working in vain.”[3] Moses feels so alone in his leadership, completely abandoned by God and the people, so much so that he wants to die, and yet God calmly replies, asking Moses to gather seventy elder’s of Israel to help him lead and share the burden of the people.[4]

But why does Moses need these seventy elders, this “team” of sorts, it’s not like they were going to help meat magically fall from the sky? What about all the people who stepped up to help Moses back in Exodus, as per Yitro’s suggestion, where were they in the drama of it all?

Our Torah text provides the answer, “God came down in a cloud and spoke to Moses; God drew upon the spirit that was on Moses and put it upon the seventy elders. And when the spirit rested upon them, they could share prophesies but did not do it again."[5] They “did not do it again?!” All this talk about the seventy elders who help Moses, and yet they seem to be a one hit wonder — they prophesied only once, and that was it. A deeper look into our sacred story shows a different light. 

It is only after the appearance of these seventy elders that Moses seems imbued with a new confidence. His attitude is transformed, and the challenges that Moses faced in the immediate chapters are much more trying than the people whining about wanting meat to eat. When his siblings, Aaron and Miriam, stir up trouble, our Torah comments that Moses is humble. The text does not share a dramatic Moses who strikes rocks or lashes out at the people. Despite Miriam’s cruel words, when she is stricken with leprosy, Moses even prays on her behalf! This is not the Moses we encountered a few verses ago.

Leading up to the help of the 70 elders, Moses had come to a crossroads in which he threw up his arms and seemed to call out, “Am I even making a difference?”  I know I have made this call to the universe, and I’m sure you have as well. Perhaps when you’ve gotten on the phone to lobby a politician, or made a proposal to fix a problem at work, or given so much of yourself to a cause, only to see it defeated, perhaps you too have called out to the world, “Am I even making a difference?” “Do I have the power to bring about change?”

The seventy elders were there to answer those questions. When Moses called out to the world, saying he rather die than do all this work in vain, the seventy elders showed Moses that his work was not in vain. “God drew upon the spirit that was on Moses and put it upon the seventy elders,” to show Moses that his work mattered, that his work made a difference, that his work would be continued by those who believed in him.

While Lebron may be calling out to the world, wondering if he has the power to bring about change and win another series of the NBA Finals, he’ll need the support of his team, his “seventy,” to accomplish his goals, he can’t do it alone.

We simply aren’t supposed to go about life alone, it’s לֹא טוֹב, not good. In Moses’ crisis we learn two valuable lessons: First, we learn that when we are the leader, the Moses, the Lebron, we must surround ourselves with the “seventy,” with the team of people who are going to give us the confidence to keep going, that when we call out in despair they reflect back to us the impact our work has had on them. And second, when someone else is the leader, and we are part of the “seventy,” it is just as important that we tell the leaders what they mean to us, that their work is not in vain, and that their lessons live on through us. 

May each of us be blessed to feel the warmth and support of community. May we each find our team, our “seventy,” people who will reflect back to us the goodness that we seek to bring into this world, who will lend support before we ever know we need to ask, and who will encourage us to be our best selves. So too may we have the strength and the courage to be a part of the “seventy”: To reflect back the goodness, to lend support before we are asked, and to provide ongoing encouragement for the tasks ahead.Through our work to better this world as both leaders and on the teams of “seventy,” may we find a sense of wholeness, purpose, and peace.

[1] Gen. 2:18

[2] Ex. 18:17

[3] Num 11:15

[4] Num. 11:16–17

[5] Num. 11:25